Girl Clothes in a Box

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One night toward the end of September I folded up all my 'girl clothes' and put them in a box in the bottom of my closet.
Leslie Minot

Issue #10, December 1993


I'm not always sure why I do things. For example, one night toward the end of September I folded up all my 'girl clothes' and put them in a box in the bottom of my closet. Now, there are, and always have been, many reasons for me to be ambivalent about girl clothes (and about girlness in general, in fact). I'll admit right now, the gesture wasn't about arriving at some new state of consciousness about girl clothes, or even girlness as a general way of being. But by writing about the kinds of explanations I could give for this action, and about the ways in which they don't fully explain what happened, I want to raise some questions about how our actions (or at least my actions) take shape as self-conscious choices.

So why girl clothes in a box? There may have been some 'local irritants' — incidents in which the 'fact' of gender made itself felt — in the days before the wholesale closet-clearing. I think a professor even called me a 'nice girl' (my first thought being 'wrong on both counts'). The immediate trigger was no doubt a presentation I did on bodies in Foucault — Foucault being a master at avoiding any serious discussion of gender. But, as a short woman under thirty who is still in school, I am often mistaken for a 'girl' (the 'little' that might go before it being already accounted for by my height). And I have a history of ranting about Foucault and gender. So why, all of a sudden, girl clothes in a box?

Maybe the clothes have something to say about it. After all, the phrase 'girl clothes' might mean a lot of things. Clothes worn by a girl, for example, which would suggest I'm now going naked. Or clothes designed and marketed for women as opposed to men, which might suggest I'm wearing men's/boys' clothes now. So what's in the box? Two loose print jumpers, appropriate for teaching Sunday school; a black and cream empire-waist dress, appropriate for funerals and certain types of family parties; mid-calf length skirts in a variety of colors and styles, appropriate for summer secretarial jobs (note particularly the a hobble skirt which requires walking down stairs sideways and hopping up curbs); a long black skirt with demure slit, appropriate for French Department lectures; a straight black miniskirt (can be rolled up at waist for even more daring effect); pleated charcoal miniskirt (reminiscent of Catholic schoolgirl days and their travesty by the Divinyls); a black linen above-the-knee dress (can be worn to the office with chocolate and black cross-hatched suitjacket when chocolate and black crosshatched trousers are inappropriate — i.e., not feminine enough — or can be worn to clubs with large, clomping boots); a flowered minidress from Laura Dern wannabe days (hemline rises revealingly in the wind); pinchy black shoes with square toes and bows (band-aid eels in advance); sweaters with shoulder pads.

Already this archeology of my closet suggest some things about my 'girl clothes' and the kind of girlness they imply. A lot of the clothes are uncomfortable or difficult to maneuver in. Some work to disguise or change the shape of my body. A lot of them are about being sexy, or at least about being sexualized. And almost all of them seem to be about being 'appropriate' for something, about meeting expectations, not just being a woman but being the right kind of woman, being a woman in the right kind of way. It's not so much that the clothes attest to my 'girlness,' but that they allow that girlness to be positioned in certain hierarchies, they allow certain kinds of identity to lay claim to me.

Before pursuing the question of hierarchies and identities, through, it seems important to ask how those clothes got into my closet. Some were given to me, but most of them I bought. And I thought I knew what I was doing. I mean, and archeology of my closet could in many ways be an archeology of my own desire for an image, a form of self-presentation, of who I might want others to think I am. And archaeology is a good word, since the clothes cover a range of about seven years of my life. What was I thinking?

Well, with the longer skirts, I was probably thinking that I like to pay rent and eat during the summer. I was probably calculating the 'image differential' necessary to get a temp job as an executive secretary in a bank rather than as a file clerk for a used car dealer. I was probably hearing my mother's voice telling me about 'making a good impression' and looking 'respectable.' I was probably hearing my undergraduate adviser (a stylish dresser herself) reminding me never to interview in a skirt that might make its own decisions about how much of my legs to reveal. Feminine (i.e., subservient, off-balance, constrained?) but not sexual = 'professional' (i.e., upwardly mobile or upwardly mobile wannabe white collar) woman.

The miniskirts and dresses told a different story. They said 'I've been on the stairmaster four days this week. (Check out the muscles.)' They said, 'I'm going dancing tonight.' They said, 'I want a woman in a suit to take me home.' They were about wanting others to remember my sexuality. As a lesbian, I have a particular stake in women's ability to represent themselves as sexual, as desiring, as in some way choosing their own desires. In spite of the recent bout of lesbian chic in Newsweek and Vanity Fair, lesbianism isn't terribly visible in our society. While there are certainly good reasons to be suspicious of visibility in and of and for itself, when I'm not visible as a lesbian — not 'looking like a lesbian' — I'm presumed to be heterosexual. When I don't look like a lesbian, I waste a lot of time explaining that I'm a lesbian. Or I waste a lot of time providing unsatisfactory answers to unsatisfactory questions about who I am or am not dating, what birth control I am or am not using, what I did last Saturday night, how I feel about really muscular men, whether I will keep my own name after marriage or not...

One way to signify 'lesbian' is to cross gender lines, to look 'mannish,' masculine, 'butch.' So much for the job as a receptionist. Another way to signify 'lesbian' is to produce an image that is not exactly traditionally feminine, but emphasizes both sexuality and control of that sexuality, the 'femme' of the contemporary urban middle class, the so-called 'lipstick' lesbian. Again, so much for the job as a receptionist, at least through a mainstream temp agency. Now wait a minute, someone says, the way you look on your own time is your business, but work is work, and what's wrong with that? My lesbianism, however, isn't just a hobby, a weekend masquerade. I doubt that my het coworkers will leave their heterosexuality at home. I'm not saying that I won't play the game, dress up, smile at the assistant vice president, or that I haven't done so in the past. But I'm always aware of the burden of my presumptive heterosexuality, which is enforced by the ways women are allowed to display or made to conceal their bodies in the business world. Of course the analysis of how this works will be different for every occupational category — this was less of a concern for me when I was moving equipment for an orchestra in Connecticut, but became a major concern when I was looking for temporary clerical jobs in San Francisco. Still, the clerical work does pay about twice what the other job paid...

It seems that questions about my girl clothes tend to bring me back to questions of money. Maybe I even want to say that my ambivalence about girl clothes isn't just about the way that my clothing can play an important role in determining my summer income, but also about the way that the 'appropriateness' of certain kinds of clothing may conceal a subtext about class identity. I'm not sure how clear my analysis of the relationships of representations of gender, sexuality and class are, how particular they are to my background, how much my position inside the academy affects them. But it seems to me that this combination of identities, all of which I might want to signify somehow, produces complicated contradictions, makes all representations equally impossible or inaccurate.

I should begin with the complexity of what I might call my 'class background.' Although my parents both hold advanced degrees, and their families' class backgrounds are somewhat different, both of them worked in factories during their teen years. My mother's family was probably poorer much of the time, but they were better educated. My father was the first person in his working class family to go to college. While I was growing up in a mostly working-class neighborhood in a steel-belt city, my mother was determined I would be middle class. So much of what she taught me, and for years (in effect) enforced on my way of dressing, had everything to do with not looking 'trashy' or 'vulgar' — not looking sexual in a way that would indicate that I wasn't middle class, not looking like so many of the girls who went to school with me. At the same time, she was disappointed if I didn't look 'feminine' enough, and we had a number of overblown arguments when I stopped wearing makeup for a while in high school. There was one way to be feminine, and it wasn't sexual. There was one way to be middle class, and that was to be feminine. Of course there was no way to be a lesbian.

Now, this may be a very specific story, but I do think it's clear that there is often a class element to the sexualization of women's bodies. Last summer, when I was working in the Financial District in San Francisco, I happened to mention to a friend of mine who's a lawyer how surprised I was to see so many women wearing a (new?) style of mid-calf length skirt which basically wraps around, leaving a slit up the front that opens to mid-thigh with every step. My friend shrugged. 'It's secretaries, not business women.' That was that.

My girl clothes, then, are already caught up in the struggles of my sexuality against the kind of gender prescribed by the class to which I was taught to aspire, but to which I usually feel I only halfway belong. All of this is complicated by being in the academy, where I'm marginally less in danger of being presumed heterosexual, but where I'm almost certain to be presumed to be solidly middle-class. With any luck, in fact, I'll be able some day to consolidate a middle-class identity by getting an academic job. But the presumption that the university is necessarily middle-class makes me nervous, especially at a public university like Cal. Not all of my students come from middle-class backgrounds, and I want them to know that not everyone teaching in the university does either. I'm fortunate to be TA-ing for an American Cultures course which emphasizes class, gender and sexuality in the contemporary novel, so I do get to talk about these kinds of issues with my students. But there's also a part of me that wants them to see a difference, to see that there are many different kinds of people standing in front of blackboards at the university (in spite of the fact that they faculty is still overwhelmingly white and male, and 'presumably' straight and middle class). So do I dress in a transgressively feminine way, do I dress the way my mother always told me not to dress, do I look 'vulgar'...or does that just work to consolidate a problematic image of working class women as more sexual (or as more likely sexual prey?) than middle class women? I'm not sure I know how to negotiate a really 'feminine' representation that would let me position my sexuality and class in a way that wouldn't be complicitous with dangerous or regrettable stereotypes. Maybe femininity isn't the place from which to make this critique. Maybe the girl clothes are inadequate, ought to be in the box.

So, then, what am I wearing? Jeans, T-shirts, turtle-necks, a second-hand suitjacket, sweatshirts. Is this masculinity? Mostly not. Is this the outside of gender? No. As I suggested earlier, it's not that clothes give me my girlness. A doctor looked at me and made that decision 26 years ago, and it would take another doctor to undo it in terms that would be (barely) recognizable to society. Clothes only position my girlness as visibility within a range of other social discourses. Even when my clothes are more masculine, I am only a girl doing masculinity. (The 'only a girl' part is the essential phrase.) And if I wanted to do masculinity on a professional level, it would almost certainly involve a consolidation of upper-middle-class self-presentation. (This is changing, but slowly.) A suit with trousers might be acceptable — in silk or linen. A tailored suit, a certain cut, masculinity with a flair, masculinity more elegant than a man's, perhaps. In a liberal institution.

I also have some other reservations about masculine self-presentation, although I admit I love watching women do it. It always feels to me like a blatant power grab, an assertion of practical and symbolic mastery and control, and in those terms it's often a turn-on. But I wouldn't be entirely comfortable with a desire for control and mastery that takes itself too seriously. Any challenge to existing gender hierarchies that simply changes 'who's on top' rather than attempting to undermine the hierarchical structure in general doesn't seem likely to produce any real social change. So what about the girl clothes in the box? After all, they were awkward, constraining, difficult — in some sense that's accurate as a partial representation of my 'real' gendered position, my 'real' relationship to certain kinds of power.

The fact is that I don't see any way out of gender, least of all through clothing. And I don't see any self-presentation that in some way doesn't seriously work against any meaningful expression of the multiple 'positions' I 'occupy' and might choose to signify. So why bother to put the girl clothes in a box if it doesn't make any difference what I wear? Because it does make a difference, or rather 'differences.' Putting my girl clothes in a box may not by itself solve any of the problems of representation I've discussed, but what it allows me to do is to remain aware of my own discomfort with the tactics of self-representation I've chosen, and to recognize that as long as I see them as situational tactics I have some freedom to change them when I find myself becoming too attached (addicted, even?) to the (partial) image of me they produce, when I feel they are starting to 'define' me in ways that diminish the complexities of my different identities. I may not always change my self-representation in every situation of discomfort — after all, I still like to pay rent and eat. But as a graduate student I do have a fair amount of freedom to constitute my appearance, to change it, to avoid the illusion that I'm projecting a stable and relatively uncomplicated self. The particular reasons for putting my girl clothes in a box in September are less important to me than the reminder that I have the possibility (privilege, even?) of recognizing that they are a tactic for representing an identity, but that I don't have to give them the power to constitute my identity.

One final note: Somewhere between the first and final drafts of this piece the girl clothes began to creep out of their box. I'm not always sure why I do things, but I think that the process of thinking through the initial gesture of putting them away diminished their threat in some way. A happy ending?

Leslie Minot is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department at UC-Berkeley. She is working on her anxiety about feminine sexuality at the turn of the century in French, English, and Bengali literatures.

Copyright © 1993 by Leslie Minot. All rights reserved.

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